Deflategate lessons from Clemson, USC

Clemson and South Carolina players scuffle in the infamous 2004 brawl during the Tigers’ victory at Death Valley. (Staff/File)

The New England Patriots don’t have the same grip on Deflategate that quarterback Tom Brady had on footballs during the AFC Championship Game victory over Indianapolis.

They initially laughed the whole thing off while much of America (and its morning news shows) saw the Patriots playing with conveniently underinflated footballs as basic cheating — like a city-slicker looking for a date on farmersonly.com.

That smell at Super Bowl XLIX isn’t 10-day-old chowder one of the Patriots brought from Gloucester. You know it’s a failed experiment when Bill Nye “The Science Guy” is among Deflategate critics.

The Patriots and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell could have used a crisis management lesson from Clemson and South Carolina.

Deflategate got out of hand because responsible parties didn’t responsibly address a major controversy immediately.

The 2004 Brawl — a football slugfest that marred the Tigers’ 29-7 victory over the Gamecocks at Death Valley — didn’t have a chance to stain reputations because school officials quickly administered strong penalties. Before the NCAA, SEC and ACC could react, South Carolina and Clemson announced they would decline bowl invitations.

“With regard to the image of our university, for what we hopefully stand for and for sportsmanship, we just felt like we needed to opt out of any bowl bid,” said Terry Don Phillips, who was Clemson’s athletic director in 2004 and still teaches a Sports Law class at Clemson.

Phillips huddled with Clemson President James Barker and school trustees hours after The Brawl. He broke the bowl ban news to an initially furious head coach Tommy Bowden (a year later, Bowden said the ban was a good idea).

In Columbia, Athletic Director Mike McGee let Lou Holtz know South Carolina had come to the same conclusion after a talk with Phillips. Players at both schools reacted with anger when the news was announced on Monday.

But Phillips, McGee and like-minded people at their universities knew what was coming.

“Had we gone on to bowl games, it would have perpetuated what people had already seen on TV,” Phillips said. “TV commentators during the bowl season, every time Clemson or South Carolina would be mentioned, would bring up the fight. A bowl game wasn’t going to do our university any good and certainly wasn’t going to do our football program any good.

“We were trying to do the right thing in Columbia and in Clemson.”

Had the Patriots tried to do the right thing, the statement released soon after the AFC Championship Game would have read something like this: “We have learned that footballs used by the Patriots were inflated below NFL standards. Perhaps it was an overt violation, perhaps it was a misunderstanding between our quarterback and our equipment staff. But we take full responsibility and accept any punishment the league deems necessary after what we hope is a thorough investigation. We will take steps, including video monitoring, to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

By the way, high school leagues deal with playoff controversies all the time and don’t usually wait until after The Big Game to render judgment.

It didn’t take a special committee to investigate The Brawl, either.

Of course, the Gamecocks and Tigers were headed for mediocre bowl games, not the Super Bowl. But no serious person has suggested the Patriots forfeit their Arizona spot. Maybe just a draft pick and a fine, as in the “Spygate” case (the NFL took away New England’s 2008 first-round pick, fined Belichick $500,000 and fined the team $250,000 for videotaping the New York Jets’ defensive signals during a 2007 game).

The NFL could have been spared extended embarrassment and Super Bowl distractions with the kind of proactive approach — and sacrifices — Palmetto State teams made in 2004.

The Brawl cost coaches their bowl bonuses.

Players didn’t get bowl gifts and travel money.

“There was a financial penalty for our coaches and players, and I hated that,” Phillips said. “But the perception penalty for Clemson would have been much greater had we continued on.”

Phillips said he “probably will get around” to discussing Deflategate in his Sports Law class. If so, the teacher should mention that he performed better at big-stage crisis management than the New England Patriots.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff